People are making history around us, right now. The huge disruption of COVID-19, intensified by Brexit, is forcing the public sector to do things differently with a renewed imperative for collective prosperity and security. Initiatives like the UK Ventilator Challenge, building Nightingale hospitals and applying new technologies to solve COVID-19 challenges show what the UK can do, at pace. And people have realised they can work effectively remotely, supported by rapidly adapted digital services.
So, how can the UK build on these opportunities, and learn from the urgency and shared sense of purpose created by a global pandemic, to unlock the nation’s ingenuity? In our experience, it comes down to defining a clear mission, becoming more agile and creating the right environment for innovation and growth to flourish.
A clear mission rallies people around the cause
Being clear about what the Government wants the UK to excel in, and having a plan for getting there, focuses efforts and encourages co-investment. Even if the destination is different to the original ambition, trying to reach it can generate spin-off benefits by galvanising the public sector, private sector and academia to work together and try new things. That’s what the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) found with its ‘Grand Challenge’ for autonomous vehicles, where it offered a $1m cash prize to the team that could get a car to drive itself off-road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Future leaders of the proposed UK ‘ARPA’ can learn from such examples, deliberately bringing together diverse groups to work on some of the biggest problems facing society.
In the UK’s response to COVID-19, we’ve already seen how a clear purpose promotes collaboration. Back in early March 2020, the virus was threatening to overwhelm UK hospitals, so the Government announced the UK Ventilator Challenge – a call for British industry to design new, and scale existing, ventilators. PA led this critical mission, coordinating more than 5,000 offers of help from a range of innovators, from multinational corporations to small medical device makers and individuals. We oversaw the design, development and approval of four new ventilator devices. And within 12 weeks of getting the call from government, we’d ensured more than 13,000 ventilators had made it to hospitals. In the end, every patient who needed a ventilator got one.
While incentivising people to work together, rather than in competition, will be key to making such collaboration a success in the long-term, it’s much more important to have specific, purposeful goals. Before leaders get bogged down, restructuring funding to cut across siloes and adapting intellectual property rules to enable collaboration, they need to frame tangible and inspiring outcomes for their teams to work towards.
The UK has a clear ambition to be at the forefront of cyber, technology, digital and data. But exactly what it wants to achieve in these areas, and why, needs explaining.
The world moves quickly, so agility is essential
Innovation can take time. But time can be a luxury in the modern world. The Government needs to create an adaptable system that can spot an innovative idea and pivot quickly to develop and implement its minimum viable state. That means making it much easier to prototype, test, learn and iterate ideas rapidly, with end-users in mind (or, preferably, in the room).
Government could find accelerated commercial arrangements so departments can place contracts in days, for example the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) aims to place contracts within three weeks. Removing match-funding would allow small start-ups to bid for contracts with ingenious ideas. Simplifying the overall innovation funding landscape would make it possible to direct investment to the best academics and entrepreneurs by the shortest possible route. Bridging the gap between idea and market means focusing on exploitation as least as much as ideation and development.
There are already good examples where being more agile and collaborative has helped Government access private sector expertise, such as Team Tempest. This alliance is enabling the aerospace companies work collaboratively with the Government, and each other, towards a shared ambition – developing the technologies needed for the next generation combat aircraft.
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Or read PA Consulting’s report – ‘Views Ahead of IR20: UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy‘ – here.